Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Commuting is not bad for you

Richard Florida read the latest Gallup-Healthways survey about commuting and decided that commuting is a societal evil on par with obesity and smoking. Florida looks at the data as presented and sees an epidemic of lousy health (see tables above). These data would suggest bad news if they were meaningful. The way the data is presented makes it seem that there are as many people commuting over an hour and a half each way as there are commuting less than ten minutes. This is extremely misleading.

The truth is about half of US workers commute 20 minute or less. (See lots of details here among other places.) Even according to the survey Florida cites only "3% commute for more than an hour each way." So of the seven categories presented two of them have 3% of the total sample. That's how nonsense gets started.

A more inconvenient truth for Florida is that the extreme commuters--those with commutes over 90 minutes--are most likely to get to work by commuter train. Advocates for rail transit to reduce commuting costs should be careful what they wish for. People driving to work alone have the shortest commutes, and commutes are growing most in suburb-to-suburb travel which are poorly served by any transit but rail in particular. The megaregions that Florida and others hold so dearly are also polycentric regions with employment centers spread out all over the place. The urban areas that have the most centralized business districts are those with smaller populations. From Commuting in America II:
Contrary to what some might expect, it is the smaller metropolitan areas that show strong center city dominance. In areas below 100,000 population, The internal center city flows alone are about half of all flows, but drop to below 24% at the highest metro size levels

So when Florida makes this claim:
Commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. It's time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

he is reading into the data facts that aren't there. The longest commutes are those that are not on the "over-clogged roads." More importantly, unlike smoking or obesity, commuting has a very real value. It gets you to work! You can make a case that smoking and obesity should be eliminated or severely curtailed for public health reasons, but we can't and shouldn't eliminate commuting. Lots of people over the past couple of years have had their commutes eliminated for them and I don't think you can argue that they or the country are better off for it. Commuting is good! Misrepresented data in bad tables are bad for you and me.

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